At first blush, the impact of a celebrity’s death on the individual would seem rather far removed. Upon closer examination, however, classic stages of grief may be recognized. Although duration and severity may be noted to be shorter and more limited, it can reasonably be expected that the degree to which grief is experienced can directly correspond to the degree to which the individual relates to the given celebrity and his or her characters. Beloved characters and well known actors can be thought of as “extended family” in today’s world. Associations are developed to people that have never even been met in “real life.” These parasocial relationships should not be underestimated, especially in terms of considering loss.
Denial and Isolation
A familiar question concerning the passing of a person of considerable notoriety is “Do you remember what you were doing at the moment you first heard of _____’s death?” The initial shock upon hearing of a famous person’s death can cause whatever mundane aspect of our lives happening at that moment to be burned into our brains as a vivid memory. People can remember exactly where they were when, for example, President Kennedy or Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Keeping an eye on the news to make sure that some horrible mistake hasn’t been made and disbelief that the beloved celebrity is gone can be common reactions. Millions stayed close to their television sets to find out if Princess Diana was actually dead. In fact, her funeral garnered the honor of attracting history’s largest television audience.
(Kearl, 2003). The fact that bodies must be sometimes seen to be believed dead is one reason for the “lying in state” custom. There are even still a few “Elvis is alive” holdouts to this day!
Anger, it seems, would be more of a consideration in this discussion when it is tied to a “senseless” or shocking death. The automobile accident of James Dean, the assassination of President Kennedy, the murder of John Lennon, or more recently the suicide of Robin Williams come to mind as tragic and needless deaths. These are the types of deaths that seem to cause an entire nation to turn inside themselves and go into mourning. We turn on our televisions and watch the nonstop coverage of the person’s life under a microscope, looking for any reason that might help explain or make sense out of the senseless.
Recently our country saw the death of the popular comedienne, Joan Rivers. If she hadn’t had apparent issues with insecurity over her appearance, if her doctor wouldn’t have improperly performed an unconsented to procedure...these are the bargaining chips discussed over her passing.
Turning once again to the tragic death of comedian Robin Williams. As a country, there was a collective cry of “if only he had sought out someone to help him through his depression!” “If he only would’ve known how much he meant to all of us,” the often heard sigh. A need to regain control is often the result of feelings of helplessness and vulnerability. Sometimes, secret “deals” may be made with God or other higher power in order to postpone the inevitable. (Axelrod, 2006)
Although different individuals may display differing levels of depression. When it comes to mourning the loss of an artist, an entire country may mourn the loss of their great gifts and achievements and experience depression while being overcome with an intense desire to recapture the moments and emotions that encompassed their career.
An actor’s death may cause an impromptu movie marathon over a sad weekend to relive cherished moments. Watching guest appearances on talk shows and clips on the video-sharing website YouTube can go on seemingly endlessly.
The very recent passing of actor Leonard Nimoy might create nostalgic feelings for one’s childhood spent watching the larger-than-life character of Spock on Star Trek. One of the more touching quotes read on the internet today in memory of him was a thank you to the actor for making it okay to be the different, weird, but smart kid in the 1970s. This was but one of dozens to be sifted through. His impact was widespread.
A well known singer’s death can cause album sales to skyrocket. Musical artists tend to illicit the most grief from fans because they have a deeply emotional impact on their fans. Musicians and singers often help to shape identity, self-image, fashion, attitudes and beliefs. Additionally, people usually emotionally identify with the impact of the musician/performer at various key moments in their life. For example, others might recall what they felt, the people they were dating, how they perceived themselves, and what they experienced in their life when a certain song was popular. (Wanis, 2012)
The final stage of grief can be the most daunting. Acceptance that someone is truly gone has an inherit finality that one almost doesn’t want to get through. The difficulty of the ability to accept the death of a celebrity may be associated with the personal level of loss involved. A Robin Williams fan may not want to accept the fact that there will be no more great comedies or dramas starring one of their very favorite actors. The Michael Jackson fan doesn’t want to come to the realization that there will be no new #1 albums.
It must be remembered that even though these feeling of love for a given celebrity are very common, the societal norm doesn’t allow much room for this type of grieving. Even though there can be a vast and complex emotional connection between hearing a voice actor’s character repeated countless times can be intimately linked with the toddlerhood of a child, for example, society hasn’t made room for the level of mourning one may
experience at the death of that actor. Unconventional emotional bonds can be formed as a result of linking life experiences with a given artist’s work at any given time. Where is the support group for the mother that mourns the loss of her child’s toddler years right along with the loss of life of the actor whose voice was that lovable genie?
These losses have a distinct difference from the loss of a family member. The social structures and support for grieving the loss of a media character or, in particular, a fictional character do not exist. Though someone may be upset that their favorite soap opera character was killed off yesterday, it may be that when they tell someone about the personal loss, they laugh. It's a very different reaction than if their grandmother had died. (Harris, 2012)
Let’s not allow society to continue to turn their heads to this type of pain. Understand that there is nothing wrong with sharing this type of experience and seek out help to cope with your loss in the same way you might with any other type of mourning.
Many know little about mourning practices surrounding death and the opportunity for consolation through ancient traditions. Those who are familiar with the rites of mourning--especially as people find themselves present at the moment of death—know the initial hierarchy to take to protect the dignity of the deceased and help relieve the pain of their own loss. For those who feel "lost" upon witnessing or learning of the death of a beloved, these long-established practices can bring comfort.
A few overarching topics emerge from a review of the laws of death and mourning, including the following:
- Mourning is to be encouraged--but not to the extreme.
- Rich and poor, male and female, are equal in death and mourning.
- The dignity of the deceased is paramount.
- We are instructed to "choose life," and “extend life” where it is possible and dignified to do so.
While each death is in some sense a tragedy, to some thinkers it also represents a kind of homecoming.
Kearns, Patrick. (2003). Celebrity Deaths
Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying . Retrieved February 28, 2015, from http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407200051.html
Wanis, Patrick. (2012, July). Why We Take Celebs Deaths So Hard.
Shape Your Life. Retrieved February 28, 2015, from http://www.shape.com/blogs/shape-your-life/why-we-take-celebs-deaths-so-hard
Harris, Richard. (2012, June 28). Seeking solace:
Celebrity deaths often have pronounced effects on their audiences. Kansas State University News and Communications Services. Retrieved February 28, 2015, from http://www.k-state.edu/media/newsreleases/jun12/smgrieving62812.html
Axelrod, Julie. (2006). The 5 Stages of Loss and Grief
PsychCentral . Retrieved February 28, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/000617
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth (1969)Five stages of grief excerpted from On Death And Dying